Comparing Pet Nutrition Products- Ingredient Lists and Product Label Terms

Public awareness of the importance of nutrition in health has resulted in an increased demand for high quality pet nutrition products for animals.  Many pet owners are willing to spend the extraPet Nutrition and Ingredient Lists and Product Label Terms money to provide high quality diets for their pet.  However, the cost of the pet nutrition product does not always correlate with the quality of the product.  Healthy nutrition can only be accomplished with an awareness of the principles used to evaluate and compare pet nutrition products.  Actual knowledge on the subject should allow veterinarians and pet owners to more accurately select the appropriate product.

Methods to establish the adequacy of pet nutrition products

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a group that was founded in 1909 to help consumer confidence in pet nutrition products.  It has established a definition of terms used to describe pet nutrition products and standards and methods by which they are tested.  The adequacy of a diet is based on one of two methods, feeding trials or biochemical analysis.

Animal feeding tests are expensive, but a more accurate means of determining the adequacy of a pet nutrition product.  The label will state that animal feeding tests or feeding trials were used.  Such statements indicate that the adequacy of the diet was established using AAFCO feeding trial procedures.  The alternative method is a biochemical analysis, which is less expensive and states that the biochemical composition of the diet was compared to known optimal standards.  The label will state that the diet is formulated to meet the nutritional needs of a particular life stage.  (Click here to learn more about the different nutrition requirements for pets of different life stages). Since nutrients are not always digestible, a biochemical analysis could over estimate the nutritional benefits of the product.

Comparison of pet nutrition products based on names of ingredients on the ingredient list

The ingredients on the pet nutrition label, such as chicken, vary in nature based on the terms used to describe them on the ingredient list, according to AAFCO guidelines.  For example, chicken is not the same as chicken meal, which is not the same as chicken by-products, which is not the same as chicken by-products meal.  Chicken is the combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.  The term, by-products, refers to organ meats such as liver and spleen, and by AAFCO guidelines does not include hair, feathers, hooves or other poorly digestible tissues.  The term meal basically refers to ground up meat.  These concepts apply similarly for other products of animal origin such as chicken, beef, lamb, poultry and fish.

Comparison of pet nutrition products based on terms used on the product label

The names of the ingredients on the pet nutrition label also reflect a significant difference based on the terminology used, according to AAFCO guidelines.   The wording used reflects a difference in the amount of the ingredient in the product and can help the pet owner better understand what the pet is being fed.  A product that is “All Beef” should contain 70% beef (or > 95% of the total weight of all ingredients exclusive of water used in processing).  A diet that is “Beef and Chicken” similarly should contain 70% beef and chicken, with chicken constituting at least 3% of the diet.  These types of products will only be found in canned products.

A pet nutrition product that is “Chicken Formula,” or “Chicken Dinner,” or “Chicken Entrée”, or any similar designation contains a minimum of 10% chicken (or > 25% of the total weight of all ingredients, exclusive of water used in processing).  A diet “With Beef” is meant to highlight a minor ingredient and contains a minimum of 3% beef.  A diet with “Fish and Cheese” contains a minimum of 3% fish and 3% cheese.  A diet that is “Beef Flavored” has to have a source of beef present, but there is no minimum percentage of beef required.

To learn about ingredient statements an guaranteed analysis in pet nutrition products, click here.

To learn about protein, fat, and carbohydrate content in pet nutrition products, click here.

To learn about dry matter and moisture content in pet nutrition products, click here.

To learn about the caloric content in pet nutrition products, click here.

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Dr Stephen Atwater

Stephen W. Atwater, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVIM (oncology) is a board-certified veterinary oncology specialist. His professional interests include utilizing emerging therapies for difficult to treat cancers.

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